Life as an Exchange Student in Tokyo

I still remember the day I was called to apply for my admission at the Department of Youth and Sports in Thimphu, Bhutan. I was given a list of colleges and the fields I was eligible to apply for. Back then in 2016, I was in a phase where I had no specific interest in any of the fields. Just by fluke, looking up at the images of different universities on the internet, Mae Fah Luang University somehow caught my attention. The beautiful infracture of the college along with the concept of being called “The Only University in the Park” sounded so cool and wonderful. I was drawn more by the fact that Chiang Rai (where MFU was located) was not as crowded and busy as Bangkok. It was just a simple culturally diverse place, perfect for studying. And the fact that I was an International Student who got the golden opportunity of studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology on full scholarship was already a boon to me. Little did I know that three and half years later, I would once again be blessed with another opportunity of going as an exchange student at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology in Japan for my OverSea Training experience.

Although I was already an International Student at MFU, I was still feeling scared and excited at the same time thinking about how I will live in Japan, a country where most people only spoke Japanese and all I knew was the basic cliche lines of greetings like Ohayo gozaimusu, Konnichiwa and arigato gozaimusu. My heart skipped a beat when the officer at the immigration center at the airport kept on asking questions in Japanese. Soon then I grabbed the file from my backpack filled with necessary documents such as my invitation letter from the host university along with a contract copy of my scholarship. Only then the officers said, “Gakuse desuka?” (are you a student?) But not knowing Japanese, I simply put a smile on my face and nodded my head somehow. He then handed me my residence card and I got through safely from the immgiration. To my surprise, one of our Thai seniors was waiting for us. He apparently came to pick us up but the moment I saw him, I was so relieved to see somebody from home (yes, Thailand is like my second home ^-^)

But the moment I got down from the Shinkansen (a bullet train from Narita airport to Shinagawa station) and saw the scenery around I got really excited. Japan was exactly like how it was shown on different social media sites. The restaurants were small and cozy, the alleys were filled with wine bars and noodle shops with convenience stores placed everywhere within 5 meter range and all the places were neat and clean. I thought to myself, Thank you arjan Saraot (my project advisor) for creating this opportunity for me and Osako sensei (my Co-advisor) for making this dream come true. Finally on 6th January, I was registered as a student in TUMSAT university. On the very first day, I was asked to join a seminar where I met my lab members for the first time. Osako sensei’s lab was culturally diverse. He had full-time students from Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, some Japanese and now, even a Bhutanese. The atmosphere in the seminar room on my very first day seemed frightening. Hundreds of questions were asked by sensei to the presenter but there was no answer. The room was filled with silence and I was like no matter where you are(whether in Thailand or Japan), seminars are the same everywhere. You need to understand what you are doing before presenting yourself to the crowd. What shocked me even more was the fact that my new lab mates told me that this type of seminars were held every week and we need to take turns to present. That was the first time I realised there is no time to slack off here. We had to update what we did in the previous week and what we plan to do once every week. I was more determined than ever to complete my research work – a part of which was already started in MFU.

January month felt very short. It passed in a flurry of activities of getting myself officially registered as a student and as a resident in Japan. There were a lot of procedures but everything was systematic. Thanks to my tutor (my Japanese buddy), I didn’t feel any pressure on how to get those things done. But the real trouble began when I started my experiment. Initially when I came from Thailand, I only brought my freeze-dried anthocyanin powder and not the other film-forming materials. To make things even worse, maybe it was due to the change in the material brands and also the conditioning environment, my films were not setting at all. It felt like I was thrown into a room full of darkness. Everything was working well when I tried my experiment in MFU but not here at TUMSAT. After performing so many preliminary tests and trying out so many different conditions, finally, I was able to get the right film forming condition. It took me exactly a month to solve that problem. But once it was solved, I could see light down the tunnel because I knew, if only I could find the perfect conditions, I could finish my experiment real quick. Within a few months from then, I completed my experiment. Learning in this new environment was fun. The countless discussions with the lab members, talking to each other about our individual projects and also getting the opportunity to attend seminars with distinguished professors from korea was all a wonderful learning experience.

I would work on the weekdays and go for sightseeing during the weekends. From getting lost at Shinjuku station for not being able to find the exit gate that I wanted, to trying out my first ever Ice-skating experience at yokohama, everything felt surreal. It was on that day I realized I had acrophobia when I was on the Giant Ferris Wheel. Although I could see the most incredible view of the city from the cabin of the ferris wheel, I couldn’t move a single muscle on my body due to fear. But again, if not in Japan, where can I get another chance like this?

Another thing I remember was visiting the Zojiji Temple and checking out my fortune using the fortune slips. The slip had a lot of positive comments and at the same time some things I should be careful of in the future. It was my first time again, reading fortunes and not knowing if I should believe it or not. Anyhow, feeling the good energy from the temple, I also went on to the famous Tokyo Tower. The view from the top deck of the tower is something that my words can’t describe. The night sky filled with stars above while the city lights filled the land, the world at the moment was simply glittering.

Never in my wildest dream did I think that the world would suffer from COVID-19. Ever since the news broke out, our lab classes were suspended as a control measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Online meetings were held once every week to update our status and I even stopped visiting places. There were a lot of places still left to go but may be not this time, I thought to myself. Nevertheless, the short time I spent here was one of the best experiences I had all my life. From trying to adapt myself to a whole new culture to getting used to living in a fast forward systematic world, Japan was sure a lesson for me to value my and other’s time, to organize my work and be systematic to avoid unnecessary chaos. In short, the 5 months stay here passed in a blink of an eye. Maybe it was because I was having fun – fun learning, fun enjoying and fun experiencing the first cherry blossom of my life.

People say good things come to those who wait but I have always believed that better things come to those who run for it. Grabbing the opportunity and working hard for it is important because only then life rewards you the fruit of your hard work. I am glad I made the right decision by applying for this exchange program. More so I am grateful to all my lecturers in the School of Agro-Industry for taking care of us so well for the past 4 years of my life in MFU. I am not saying this just for the sake of saying but I feel that if you really want to grow as a person with skills and knowledge, then MFU(more so in the school of Agro-Industry) is where you should be. A lot of memories to be taken both from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology and Mae Fah Luang University. Thank you for making my wishes come true and for equipping me better to face the future. I may be graduating now but MFU will always have a special place in my heart.

Sending lots of love and virtual hugs,
Mindu Zam Dorji
School of Agro-Industry’18